MANDALAY, MYANMAR - A Myanmar court on Tuesday allowed police to detain an American entrepreneur accused of operating a marijuana plantation for two more weeks while he is investigated.
John Frederic Todoroki and two Myanmar co-workers appeared in court in Mandalay region’s Myingyan district for the first time since their April 23 arrests. They could face charges carrying penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
Myanmar’s anti-drug agency said 349,300 marijuana plants, 5,200 seedlings, 380 kg (838 pounds) of marijuana seeds, 1,804 grams (64 ounces) of marijuana oil, and chemicals and equipment were found when the 20-acre (8-hectare) plantation on an industrial estate in central Myanmar was raided.
Plantation operator III M Nutraceutical Co. said in an April 26 statement that the plants are actually hemp, and its project was approved by the Mandalay region government last August for research and development purposes. It said its farm has been growing industrial hemp, kenaf, peppermint, coffee and eucalyptus, and is strictly doing research, with no sales or distribution.
The company said its work was focused on hemp, which can be processed into CBD — cannabidiol — a nonintoxicating compound that many believe has health benefits, but also has many other uses.
Hemp can be grown legally in many countries, and is often used for making CBD products. Marijuana is another form of cannabis and another source of CBD. But it has psychoactive effects, causing a high. Myanmar law does not seem to clearly distinguish between the two plants.
Khin Maung Than, a lawyer representing Todoroki and his two colleagues, insisted that they had been growing hemp, which was why the project had been approved.
The company said it employs more than 170 people and seeks “to implement the first employee-owned agriculture company in the region with the goal of creating long-term, sustainable employment with benefits for the local community.” It said it teaches high-tech agricultural techniques to local villagers and donates equipment to them.
Several local farmers turned up at court Tuesday to offer moral support.
“This is a great loss for us because when we met Mr. John, we understood that all of his kindness was for our farmers in rural areas,” said Ohn Myint, a farmer from Kwae Gyi village of Ngunzun township. “He is here to help the development of our farmers.”
The parents of Shunlei Myat Noe, one of the arrested Myanmar employees, also were at court.
“She is not in charge of the laboratory, she has no connection with the laboratory,” said her father, Myo Min Aung. “She studied English, that’s why she is working there. … She doesn’t know anything. She is just a daily worker.”
“I want to bring my daughter back today if possible,” said her mother, Yi Yi Win. “My heart is broken. My daughter is innocent. She is working just to take care of her parents.”
Police have said they are also seeking to arrest Alexander Skemp Todoroki. It’s unclear where the Todorokis, believed to be father and son, last lived in the U.S.